Put yourself in Justin Tuggle’s shoes for a moment.
You are Kansas State’s backup quarterback with one game remaining in your junior season. Collin Klein has led the Wildcats to a breakthrough year, and he is coming back as a senior. Chances are slim you will ever start another college game at your current position.
It’s a painful reality. You have years of experience as a passer, and were once compared to former Wildcats great Michael Bishop because you played at the same junior college and have dual-threat capabilities. You came to K-State to be the starting quarterback. It was your dream.
What do you do?
Plenty of quarterbacks can handle a switch to receiver. That’s a possibility, but it’s not what you want.
Playing time could always open up at quarterback, but only if something unforeseen happens. You don’t want that, either.
There is no obvious choice.
Tuggle says he struggled through that scenario last December. He didn’t know what to do at first. Finding an answer took creativity. And what he came up with seemed so strange.
“It’s not something you see every day,” Tuggle says.
The creative decision? Trade in his red quarterback practice jersey, which protected him from any and all contact with defensive players, and start playing the most physical position in football: linebacker.
“I just wanted to get on the field,” Tuggle said. “I didn’t really want to be the guy who backed (Klein) up the whole year. I wanted to do something with my last year playing, so I made the switch.”
His coaches were open to the change. Before K-State began practicing for the Cotton Bowl, Tuggle sat down with coach Bill Snyder and told him he was ready to help on defense. He thought he could fill the void left by Emmanuel Lamur’s departure.
Snyder gave his blessing almost immediately, and for the next month Tuggle practiced on the defensive side of the ball, hoping to learn as much as possible before the offseason.
He adapted quickly and used his knowledge as a former quarterback to read offenses and put his 6-foot-3, 233-pound frame in the right position to make tackles. What he lacked in experience, he made up for with intensity.
“I’m just hungry as a football player in general,” Tuggle said. “I like to go out there and work each and every day. I feel like I brought that as a quarterback, and I can do the same with the same mentality when I play linebacker. Nobody is going to outwork me.”
Having a mentor helps, too. Though Tuggle spent most of his college years being compared to former quarterbacks, he might better resemble the man he speaks with every night on the phone. His father, Jessie, is a former linebacker who played 14 seasons in the NFL and is in the College Football Hall of Fame.
When Tuggle first considered switching positions, his father suggested linebacker. He now offers daily pointers and watches film with him whenever he is home.
Combine that wisdom with Tuggle’s desire to get on the field, and some are wondering why Tuggle didn’t switch to defense sooner.
“Justin’s progression has been real good,” K-State linebacker Tre Walker said. “You find a lot of players who come into linebacker; it’s hard for them because defense is a tough job. But he’s done a great job. He looks just like the son of a NFL linebacker.”
Defensive coordinator Tom Hayes won’t say who he expects to win the third starting linebacker spot next to Arthur Brown and Walker, but Tuggle is definitely in the mix.
“He’s got great skill and he’s got a great work ethic and he is going to be a very good player, but he has a lot to learn. He hasn’t been over there,” Hayes said. “When you’ve been practicing at quarterback for two years and you go to linebacker, you need to be in those meetings on a constant basis. But he is doing a nice job.”
Of course, simply being in the mix isn’t enough for Tuggle. If he was content with a backup role, he would still be a quarterback. He became a linebacker to make an impact.
“I see myself as a starter,” Tuggle said. “I came in here feeling like I had a great spring, and I’m ready to make it carry over to the summer and the start of the season.”